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A Brief History of Getting High

People associate cannabis with Mexico today, which is a good thing. The narcos had been smuggling their cannabis plants into Europe and the United States for decades. Mexico produces some of world’s finest marijuana. The states of Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco, Michoacán, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chihuahua, Sonora, and Durango—where the largest farms are located—all have climates that are perfect for cultivating cannabis: year-round temperature ranging between 70 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, with cool, long nights and low humidity.

But long before cannabis was introduced to—and became synonymous with—the New World, it was being cultivated in the lands of Central Asia. The original cannabis, or hemp, plant was not grown to produce leaves. Instead, it was grown for its stems which were able to be used as a durable and strong rope.

Excavations have revealed that hemp rope has been used by humans since the Neolithic period. It is believed that the Kurgans from modern-day Romania are responsible for the first evidence of burning cannabis. This was 3,500 BC. Proto-Indo-European tribe likely used cannabis to burn in their ceremonies and rituals. The practice was spread westward by its practitioners as they migrated. The reason the Kurgans used cannabis to their advantage is not known. They may well have discovered the plant’s psychoactive properties by accident, only to find that the smoke heightened their connection with all things spiritual.

The oldest evidence is for smoking Cannabis is sourced from western China’s Pamir Mountains. Researchers discovered THC in the flames of charcoal pipes, which were likely used to perform funerary rituals. Similar pipes from Ethiopia were found later in Ethiopia. They are dated back to the 12th Century BC. These devices are comparable to pyres but would produce a more powerful high. Given their placement inside a crypt, however, it’s safe to say they were used only ceremonially, not recreationally. 

Scholars have suggested that soma was a key ingredient in cannabis, the ritual drink created by northern Indian Vedic Indo-Aryans. The Rigveda contains ancient Sanskrit hymns that describe soma as a method of extracting juice from an unidentified plant. It was believed that soma can induce feelings of euphoria if taken in small amounts. People may experience hallucinations or lose time perception when they take higher amounts of soma. Although all three effects can be attributed to cannabis, even though it was not the primary ingredient in soma, cannabis could have been added with psychedelics, such as psilocybin. Magic mushrooms.

Most often, marijuana was processed to be medicine. When the Hindus of India came down with a case of “hot breath of the gods,” healers treated the illness with cannabis smoke. The logic behind this treatment was not exactly scientific; cannabis was thought to possess healing powers because it was the favorite food of the supreme godhead Shiva, also called “Lord of Bhang.” In reality, cannabis would have been able to reduce fevers because its active ingredient, THC, works on the hypothalamus to lower body temperature.

Cannabis was not used in a religious or medical context by the Assyrians. They burned it in temples in order to exhale an aroma believed to have appeased their gods. According to sources from this region, cannabis is called qunubu. It could have been the source of our current word. In the 21st Century BC, the Assyrian Empire was created and existed until the seventh century. It dominated large swathes of Iraq, Syria, Kuwait and Syria during this period. Trade and conquest allowed Assyrian tradition to spread to neighbouring societies like the Thracians, Scythians, and Dacians. The latter were the first people to use cannabis for recreational purposes.

They were part of the Central Asian nomadic culture, which flourished between 900 and 200 BC. Scythian tribes originated in northern Siberia and settled all the way to the Black Sea. This is where they first came into contact the ancient Greeks. Their loved ones burned their hemp in tents as a way to remember their deaths. The Assyrians or Kurgans used cannabis in public, while the Scythians stored it in hotboxes at each funeral. At least, that’s the image we receive from the historian Herodotus, who wrote that “the Scythians enjoy [the hemp smoke] so much that they would howl with pleasure.” And so, the primary purpose of this ritual was to send off the dead, it clearly also served to entertain the living.

Herodotus was not present among Scythians. However, excavations appear to have confirmed his observations. An archeologist discovered fossilized hemp seeds in a Scythian camp, western Mongolia. These were found between the 5th century BC and the 2nd Century BC.

Romans too ate cannabis to their pleasure but not as you might think. As with many ancient societies, the Romans grew cannabis to harvest its seeds and not its leaves. The latter were used as fertilizer. Once ground, they were used as medicine. They were fried and served as an appetizer at lavish dinner parties. Roman chefs referred to cannabis seeds the same way as cakes or caviar. Galen, the famous Roman physician, wrote that they were consumed “to stimulate an appetite for drinking.” Nowadays, it’s the seeds—not the leaves—that are considered useless. However, the Romans believed they, too, had some intoxicating properties; Galen adds that, when consumed in large amounts, the seeds would send people into a “warm and toxic vapor.”

Classical antiquity saw cannabis being consumed so often that many people had the same concerns and questions we have today. The Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides, for instance, wrote that the plant’s spherical seeds, “when eaten in excess, diminish sexual potency.” Modern-day cannabis users are all too aware of the connection, even if they don’t eat seeds. As stated by Healthline, cannabis is “often associated with side effects that may affect sexual health, including erectile dysfunction.” Similar to some psychedelics, the general sense of euphoria generated by cannabis may counteract or override the reception of sexual stimuli.

Let’s skip forward a bit. After the 9th Century AD, recreational smoking was very popular. Middle East and Western Asia saw Islam followers take up smoking for the amusing, but not so simple, reason that the Quran forbids alcohol consumption and other intoxicating substances. Unfortunately for Muslim stoners the Quran does not mention marijuana. The Quran did not mention that they could smoke hashish.

Skipping forward again, this time to the 16th century—the century that cannabis arrived in the New World, and for the sole purpose of making rope no less. Americans began smoking marijuana about one-hundred and fifty years ago. This was when Mexican migrants arrived to the US in search of refuge from the Mexican Revolution. The U.S. government ignored this innocent, cultural and timeless practice for many decades. This changed in the Great Depression when Washington diverted the anger of the unemployed to the Mexicans. After millennia of peaceful consumption, cannabis was suddenly decried as an “evil weed” and, in 1937, the U.S. became the first country in the world to criminalize cannabis on a national level.

All the rest is history at this moment.